Mary Webster Vipassana Meditation Teacher Interview
This is a summary of the interview with Vipassana teacher and practitioner Mary Webster
Mary Webster talks about growing up as an introspective and day dreaming child. Later in life she picked a career in mental health nursing. She noticed her mind was in an either/or right/wrong mind set. And this black/white thinking bothered her, and h ow it affected her and raising kids. This is how she got into meditation, went into her first 3 day meditation retreat in 1995.
She joined a Vipassana tradition, called re-collective awareness, which is a form of Vipassana meditation. It is based on the 4 foundations of mindfulness. She talks about how it is an unstructured tradition, so a lot of thoughts come in. But then they look at it afterwards to examine conditioning. They look at the way the mind works in terms of habitual thinking, making assumptions, like “this or that” thinking.
She’s learned to be more open and nuanced in her thinking, and is better able to examine her thinking habit patterns.
She learned that it was a beautiful how not being so sure of one’s position allows you to open up and hear other people’s thinking. Which helps tremendously when communicating and dialog with others, such as your kids. It allows for a different relationship to develop.
It’s really an exploration what is going on in our minds.
Mary talks about some of the personal benefits of her meditation. For example being a lot less self-critical. Letting go of perfectionism, she could see how this is just a construction, this illusory goal of perfection. She could see through the delusion, that there is no such thing or state of perfection.
Her meditation practice opened her up to her humanness and her own suffering, which is part of being human. We each have our own, and meditation practice helps us deal and incorporate. She felt OK and learned compassion for herself to be a human being. Which in turn allowed her to be more compassion for those around her, to be more friendly, and more open to ideas.
She then talks about her role as teacher, and what she sees her students struggle. But she also sees how we all suffer in a similar way.
“Holding on to something so tightly, a sense of our-self, a sense of how things are supposed to be. That we somehow solidify our experience, and don’t allow for an exploration of the movement that is around that solidity. We tend to hold fast in a certain way.” (11 min)
The work with students is around what is held solid? So then they explore what the mind was doing with the student. What was exactly happening? A lot of this work is breaking down words. Like breaking down the word “perfect”. How does this example of a word show up in one’s life, how does it “hook” you. Breaking down the experience in less defined way, and more full of the experience, not to shortcut our life so much.
She talks about the stories, the narratives, we have made up about our lives (or life-sentences we give ourselves).
She says Buddhism is one huge investigation, a way of examining our lives. It calls into question everything. Meditation allows you to examine life at a gentler pace.
She talks about how our set ways we have, set us apart. This sense of separateness is setting up ourselves into a position, so everything becomes positional. In the flowing river of life, that would be the log that gets stuck in the middle, and then everything has to adjust around it. She talks about shifting that, working with the knowledge of conditionality, so we can take up and promote more wholesome conditions.
She also asks what conditions help us, what conditions do we put in our lives? What conditions help us continue our practice? Watching what we put into our minds and then noticing how this influences and affects us afterwards.
She talks about the importance of taking some time out every day for self-reflection and meditation. Retreats are even better.
What is production, is it only “work put out”? Or is it more than that? We get caught in thinking, “if I’m not producing something that shows, then it’s not worthwhile.” She uses the example of Einstein taking naps and end up more productive.
Mary Webster’s tips for starting a home meditation practice.
Being gentle with yourself
Trying various times to practice
Try to meditate like when most upset.
Read a little bit of Dharma (wisdom) every day if possible, just let the words enter in even if you don’t necessarily understand.
“Conditions are the companions you have along the way”
She talks about how it helps to discuss with fellow practitioners, to have a supportive group if possible.
If you can’t find companions, “be your own companion”, do journaling after your meditation, write down what you can remember, which also helps your memory. So we can be our own friend. The journals can also be shared with a teacher through phone, skype or other means online these days.
Eala Ruby Heart Sitting and Walking Meditation Practitioner Interview
Eala has immersed herself in the healing arts since 1987, taking it up professionally in 1991 and has been a student and daily practitioner of meditation and what she calls, “human soul work” since 1992. In addition to her energy intuitive gifts she is also trained and certified in Massage and Bodywork, Acupressure, Reiki and Hypnotherapy. She calls herself a Holistic Health Practitioner because that encompasses all her skills and focuses on human health as a whole. From personal experience she also understands some of the impacts of abuse, trauma and chronic illness and the challenges of anxiety, depression and stress.
She writes, “I have learned that Energy-Well-Being is not a goal to achieve or a race to win and does not need to compete with others for it. I realize it in my own way and in my own time. These practices have certainly helped with her own healing and helped Eala stay consistent and true whenever she faces stress, anxiety or any of life’s challenges. Most importantly they give Eala a foundation for living my life with integrity, purpose and harmony. She believes each of us has their own path to follow as we seek truth, wisdom and enlightenment. “
Originally from England, I now live in Spokane with my husband Pat and a friendly dog called Mitzi (who’s breath you’ll hear during the interview). When she is not working she enjoys making jewelry, dance and all forms of artistic expression, practicing Nia, Breema and Yoga, writing, walking and spending time with my husband and friends.
Author and meditator Gail Storey hiked the Pacific Crest Trail with her husband Porter Storey
(Note: below is a summary, not the entire transcript of the interview)
Gail Storey has meditated since the seventies, and has also authored 3 books. The Lord’s Motel, was praised by the New York Times Book Review as, “a tale of unwise judgments and wise humor.” Her second novel, God’s Country Club, was a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Selection. She has won numerous awards, and her fiction, poetry, and essays have been widely published.
The book that is relevant to the Meditation Freedom podcast, and in which she talks about her experiences with meditation, mindfulness as well as perhaps the most awesome trails in the US, called the pacific crest trail, is a memoir called, I Promise Not to Suffer: A Fool for Love Hikes the Pacific Crest Trail. The book won a number of awards, the National Outdoor Book Award, Colorado Book Award, Nautilus Silver Award, and Barbara Savage Award from Mountaineers Books. It was praised by Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild, as “Witty, wise and full of heart.”
I Promise Not to Suffer: A Fool for Love Hikes the Pacific Crest Trail is the hilariously harrowing story of Gail and Porter’s hike of the 2,663-mile trail from Mexico to Canada over the highest mountains of California, Oregon, and Washington. In their fifties, they carried Porter’s homemade ultralight gear to climb and descend twenty miles a day, trudge across the searing Mojave Desert, kick steps up icy slopes in the High Sierra, and ford rapids swollen with snowmelt. Through the permeable layer between self and nature, they walked deeply into the wilderness of love, and the question Who am I?
A former administrative director of the University of Houston Creative Writing Program, Gail now writes, hoopdances, and jumps out of cakes, not necessarily at the same time.
“I have a hunger to hike the whole trail” , Porter (Gail’s husband asked her), “It’s been growing in me for years, intensified by the work with people living their dying. But what keeps you going?” [Gail writes] For once I was at a loss for words. What wanted me out here? Not my body, it was falling apart. Not my thoughts, alternately confident and doubtful. Certainly not my emotions, unreliable in their swings from high to low. I wanted to be with Porter, yes, but even more, I felt inseparable now from the vast green and blue and white of the wilderness. I looked out on the lake, shimmering under the moon. I was as sturdy as the trees. I flowed over obstacles like water over rocks. I was as solid as the mountains, as clear as the sky. The wind blew through my heart. I was what knew the wind. What knew the world was here in me, pulsing in the trees, water, rocks, mountains, moon
Questions asked in the interview with Gail Storey
I’d like to start with how you got started on a meditation path, what prompted you to start thinking of doing a meditation practice? and why Buddhism?
You did some long retreats, how did those retreats and practice help you in our daily life?
Moving on to a different type of meditative retreat, let’s talk about your book, “I promise not to suffer, A fool for love hikes the Pacific Crest Trail”.
When you and your husband Porter where thinking about this epic trip along the Pacific Crest Trail, you were initially not totally thrilled with spending time in nature, as you say on the first page of your book, you “never much cared for nature, or rather, thought it OK, as long as it stays outside”. Was it the sense of your own mortality, as well as the circumstances (Porter quitting his job) or also those years of practice influence your decision to join your husband? (since you couldn’t join him on the Appalachian Trail).
Besides spending alone time, and relief from stresses of career, was it also nature that was calling you?
As you went further down the PCT, your relationship with nature changed…
You also mentioned that you wanted to fully experience each moment, instead of the endless “Cartesian chatter” as you call it.
You wanted (as you mention on page 94) the wilderness to make such claims on my body that my thoughts would settle like silt on the bottom of a lake.
Maybe you can describe a bit the experience you had on the trail, starting with suffering. As the book said, you made a distinction between pain and suffering. Explain what you mean with that to the audience.
Where you no longer had a clear sense of inside/outside. Where your persona, your face (as you say), everything dropped away, and your relationship or identification with nature transformed.
How has this affected your sense of authenticity?
Your husband Porter called it a vision quest, what was the main insight he got from this trip?
Before I get out of the way, and dive right into the first interview on the next episode, I want this first short 000 episode to just briefly explain the format of this podcast, and a little bit why I started this podcast with the topic of talking with meditators and meditation teachers on why they meditate, and where meditation meets their own daily life. I really want this to be for you and about bringing you as much value as possible, and as little fluff or excess words.
Lest I try to hard right from the start, I’ll try and keep myself from falling into the trap of never finishing recording this first episode, so I’ll preface this whole podcast adventure with this well known refrain from Leonard Cohen’s song called Anthem:
Ring the bells that still can ring,
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack in everything,
That’s how the light gets in.”
I love this quote, such a great reminder in this context that you got to start somewhere with what you have. It comes from such a human and real authentic place I think. So to apply this quote to this particular situation, I’ll share with you later how this podcast to me is just one of the creative and many ways ring those bells. And these bells will not always sound perfect, I know it will take me a while to figure out how to do the hosting job and audio well. And frankly, I could spend the next year learning how to become an NPR podcast, or I can just start and learn as I go, I would rather just get going and learn along the way what to do. I wouldn’t want to try and give you the perfect NPR experience actually, I want to make mistakes and be human. But I do hope to be able to get the guests to open enough so that they’ll hopefully let some more light in. So this is all about creatively illuminating what is dark.
First a few words about the Podcast format:
I’m releasing the first 3 episodes today since this is launch or intro week, so definitely check out the interviews in the next two episodes. By releasing several episodes, this allows you to subscribe to this podcast, which I hope you will! Next week and on-wards, I will create and release one episode each week for the time being. Each episode will be around approximately half an hour, sometimes a few minutes more, and sometimes shorter like this episode, depending on how well it flows. This podcast will consist primarily of interviews with meditation teachers and long time students or practitioners of meditation and mindfulness. They will be from all walks of life and have different perspectives and views.
I am not planning to be excessively rigid in the format of this podcast, leaving room for spontaneity, creativity, wonder and not knowing if you know what I mean! So I definitely want to experiment, and tweak to allow you to get the most value out of it. Also, if you the listener come up with feedback that tells me something needs changing, I will make some adjustments if needed. I’ll be listening or reading carefully, and looking forward to your feedback, and and make adjustments if needed.
To give you a sense of the focus of the interviews for this podcast. The questions are going to be about the how the interviewee’s came to a meditation practice, their struggles and tough times, their Aha moments, explore some of the “benefits and results” they they have seen from a regular meditation practice. While especially nowadays, outcomes and results are very important in society, I’ll also want to explore with the guests how they’re relationship with expectations and outcomes, or ideas of gain/loss has shifted perhaps, goals and results too. How they bring and integrated this practice and insights into their daily life, as well as how and why they came to a particular practice. Why they continue to practice. I’ll ask for specific practices that they do in daily concrete situations that are of benefit to their own state of mind, as well as how that affects those around them. I’ll ask them to share tips and techniques that allows them to stay deeply present and aware in their day-to-day. And if time allows, ask them about what inspires them.
So I’m aiming to get as much value and insightful answers as possible for you. That some of the things discussed might be useful tips and tools that can be actionable in your own daily life, or in specific situations. My goal is also to draw out and look for REAL and authentic responses, those that will ring true and resonate with you, the listener on a human level. I’ll be looking for interviewees to open up, and share and articulate the deepest wisdom they’ve learned, and what continues to inspire them on their journeys.
These folks are going to be coming from all walks of life and may have slightly varying practices, some may resonate more with you than others. But I believe and have learned that if listening with an open mind, that I can find that each of us (even or perhaps even more so, folks that annoy us, or even those we tend to despise) have some unique understanding and angle that can be learned from. To quote my teacher’s teacher Robert Aitken, “we are all at the headwaters of our own unique stream”. It’s an equalizer.
Each episode will have show notes on the web site, so if you forget what a guest talked about, you can find that and any links on the show notes. As well as a link to that particular episode audio, and the ability for you to share that with someone you think might enjoy that as well.
So that was about the format, now A few words about the Why and inspiration of this Podcast,
I really would like to explore meditation, mindfulness, and how this all comes together or gets integrated with daily life with this podcast.
As for The title and tagline is something I brainstormed after coming up with a list of dozens of titles. I ran it by a couple of folks who would be most likely to listen to this, and they most resonated with the ring of meditation freedom.
Freedom is a word with a lot of different meanings, but captures something we all are looking for in one way or another. And I think many of us realize that this inner or outer freedom while inner freedom might be available already in the here and now, for the most part it is something that is not free, it has to be cultivated and nourished. And this podcast is about that cultivation of freedom by using the tools of meditation and mindfulness. Let me give some examples of how there can be an increase of freedom through a committed and regular meditation and mindfulness practice. (ps i like to use quotes, because often this is someone’s distilled thoughts and insights, a really good deep quote you can let cook inside and then eventually you can be it)
“We seek peace, knowing that peace is the climate of freedom.” – Dwight D. Eisenhower
“Letting go gives us freedom, and freedom is the only condition for happiness. If, in our heart, we still cling to anything – anger, anxiety, or possessions – we cannot be free.”
the Freedom or boundlessness that can result from taking down the walls of limited self identityp
So freedom can come from peace of mind,
he freedom from preconceived notions,
freedom from the conditioning (cultural societal, .
freedom to be our authentic selves
freedom to make choices and freedom to respond, rather than react or act based on inherited programming.
Freedom from fear and death can become the freedom to live?
Freedom from ignorance, self-limiting beliefs,
Freedom from oppression and the pain of prejudice.
Freedom to be self-directed, to come forth from your own center, and autonomous.
Freedom from hatred and enmity. (like letting someone live rent-free inside your head)
Freedom to live fully in the present moment, not being pulled to the past or the future.
When we let freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last! free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!'” – Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr
And one of my favorites from Einstein: A human being is part of the whole, called by us ‘Universe’; a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest — a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and affection for a few persons nearest us.
Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.
Nobody is able to achieve this completely but striving for such achievement is, in itself, a part of the liberation and a foundation for inner security.
So I see this meditation freedom journey as it says, a journey together, not isolated into more freedom, and peace. It is a practice, a process, with struggles and stumbling, not a perfect state to reach and finish. It will never be finished, but the striving for it is what this is about.
Staying in touch with the WHY
I believe it is very helpful to clarify the why, to also stay connected and in touch with the why is very important in a meditation practice. And also in general in life, I believe it is very helpful to be in touch with my why. I’m more likely to show up for my life and those I’m with, and for each moment, but also live more deeply connected to your purpose, having a more purposeful and fulfilling life.
And one way to get in touch with that why, is to listen to others people articulate their why’s. So I think it will be very interesting to interview teachers and long time students and discover, and draw out their unique viewpoints and experience. I’m curious why they practice, what they have learned, why they value a meditation and mindfulness practice. How their relationship with themselves and the world changed and transformed through this practice, and how they apply and integrate their understanding into their daily lives. And why they continue and are driven to continue doing meditation, regardless of how well their lives go. Our daily lives for most of us have so much pressure, many various obligations, losses, joys, tedious things, etc. Hearing how folks handle situations informed by their practice will I think be very beneficial.
I also believe that that by tapping into this collective wisdom, it can inform us all of how we are all as humans in this together, and provide encouragement us on our own paths. I hope this will help humanize us, and provide us more encouragement to be our authentic selves.
So why in the form of a podcast?
William James said “We are like islands in the sea, separate on the surface but connected in the deep.”
I love technology overall, it has also enabled, empowered, it has allowed us to truly interconnect us in so many ways, right now it is connecting you and me! It not only enables us to connect, but has shown that we are interconnected. – This podcast is one way I believe we can foster and deepen that connection with each other, as well as to the mystery that we are all not just part of, but are ourselves expressions or manifestations of.
With that being said, I also see some concerns with technology. Technology has also allowed us to speed everything up, including our own pace of life (I’ll link to it in the show notes). Too much of that speed and hurry, and multi-tasking (which is another way of saying there is not enough time, so let’s see how many tasks we can do at the same time) is not going to benefit our health and wellbeing. You’ve all seen the videos of people staring at screens and not being fully present for each other for example. It is like we have so many choices, so much information and things we want to absorb, that we came up with a way to justify multi-tasking, so we can inhale more, do more at the same time, with the consequence that not only are things done less well, but also one’s experience of each of those tasks and each of those moments is way less deeply. The famous contemplative THomas Merton called this rush and pressure of modern life, a form of violence. The, “violence of our times”. So I will definitely try to keep that in mind as well as I proceed with this podcast.
How did I end up meditating? ll just briefly give you some idea of how I got into meditation practice myself.
I grew up in the Netherlands as a very shy, retreated, and dreamy kid. I was the kid who you’d see in the back of the class, running away from the ball during soccer practice. So literally and figuratively, I was running away from it all, not wanting to join the good fight. Basically on the sidelines of life, observing and making myself miserable in general. At that time I resonated strongly with Arthur Schopenhauer’s, when he says, life is something that should not have been.
As I got more into my teenage years, I had a lot of difficulty understanding life, and I started to focus on the horrors and terror of humanity’s dark side. The messages I got at church seemed at the time felt meaningless and hollow against the contrast of what I saw going on in the world. Later on in life I did revisit this and found wisdom in the tradition I was raised in. I was constantly thinking and asking why we humans did so much harm to each other, to animals, to the planet and so forth.
Already feeling separate and angry, I made things worse, by training my eyes basically to see only the dark side of humanity, like looking through dark glasses.
To make matters more dark and fearful for myself, I wanted to try to understand why we do this to ourselves, so I studied books about the holocaust, and other ways that we humans are destructive.In the beginning I saw all of this as something completely outside myself, having nothing to do with me. And so I looked for ways to extract myself, or get a one-way ticket away from the drama of life.
I eventually found my way into eastern philosophy, and found books that talked about meditation as a way to avoid having to be reborn again. To me this sounded like the smart person’s path out of life. I did of course also occasionally get confronted with moments of wonder and the beauty of life. I relished outings into nature, going to the mountains in the winter to ski, and in the summers to hike. I’ll never forget during an eastern European bicycling trip, camping out at a lake in Hungary, listening on my walkman to Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, and marveling at how humans could be so cruel on the one end, and then so beautiful and angel-like on the other end, able to produce such works of art and beauty.
When I met my first meditation teacher, she said I had dozens of layers of stress built up on my shoulders (and I was barely 16 years old at the time). She said, you will need to practice to let go one layer of stress at a time. I realized then that I had to make a long term commitment to this meditation practice. Then years later, I met my primary Zen teacher, my mind was miserable/super busy, and endless stream of thoughts at the time, and his first response was that he saw smoke coming out of my ears! How could I possibly be fully here and now, and think clear thoughts, with all this fragmentation of attention, all these layers of fog and too much in my mind.
I nevertheless must have intuited that this attitude and focus on humanity’s failures and shadow while perhaps a requisite for the path into light, at that time it was creating my own hell, and that something had to be done. So as a teenager I decided to go into a non-violent, inner martial art called Tai Chi Chuan to wear away that mountain of stress. Clearly it was better to cultivate a softness and strength, as well as an ability to bend and relax, then to continue on getting harder and therefore more prone to a weak immune system, and become breakable. From that point on in my late teens I was blessed to have very caring and no-nonsense down to earth teachers who helped provide feedback and encouragement on a lifelong practice.
One major influence that helped me decide to come and work inside the US, was Joseph Campbell. His well articulated wisdom really helped push me into making a choice about life, to be vulnerable, and wholeheartedly with eyes and heart wide open say Yea to life or to close my heart, and refuse the call to an adventure into the mystery of life and death. I could start to see that saying NO is non-sensical.
I came to the United States on a student visa in 1993, met the love of my life, Kristina, and stayed.
What I did not understand at that time, was how the worldly problems were all playing out on a much smaller scale myself as well. That I had fallen out of love and wasn’t experiencing and appreciating the rapture of being alive, and was living in fear and anger and lack of commitment with life.
Years went by, and I continued the moving meditation practice, as well as sitting on my own. I did found later that it would be wise to sit with a community led by someone with a lot of experience, so I started going to meditation groups.
In order to become mature in wisdom and compassion, I knew I needed to practice sitting meditation as well as increase mindfulness of each moment.
Fell over after 30 minutes in first retreat.
Bird fully express themselves
Provide encouragement and provide highest signal to noise ratio of value
Provide community especially for people who don’t have time or don’t live near a community
This is more or less discussed in this episode. If I missed anything, let me know in the comments! Would love a positive rating in iTunes, so I can keep making more episodes.
Please leave comments below if you have any thoughts!
Our breath has a tendency in our lives to go higher and more shallow. It is easy to test this. While you’re doing something, like working, or sitting, or standing in the middle of the day, close your eyes, and simply take 10 breaths consciously. You’ll notice right away that your breath and body relax a little more, the breath then naturally wants to go down to your belly or abdomen, where there is more spaciousness. In other words, it does not feel right breathing from high in your chest. It may take a few times to notice, but you’ll soon discover that you want to breathe more deeply.
2. Body Posture
If you have an office job, it means lots of sitting. If you can occasionally get away with closing your eyes or taking 10 breaths, you can become aware of posture issues. if you were staring at a computer screen or smart phone, notice if your neck or head is extending. This happens often over time, where the longer we sit behind a computer screen, the more we start, “leaning into the screen”. This pause and internal checkup tells you whether your body is still in good posture or not. If your neck tends to extend forward, that will cause bad posture and symptoms like neck, shoulders and arm tensions over the long run. Give yourself a short breathing/meditation break every so often, I prefer every 25-30 minutes. This way your body posture will benefit (assuming you have a posture issue). If you don’t have a posture issue, at least it will let your body relax.
3. Oxygenation of your whole body and brain
Taking conscious breaths, means taking deeper breaths. Taking deeper breaths feels a lot better too. Part of the reason for that is that you are providing extra oxygen to your body and brain. This oxygen exchange where you take in more oxygen, and let go of the carbon dioxide, is always good for the sense of well-being. Try it at least once a day, and also notice how it increases your productivity.
4. Reduce the stress inducing Cortisol and fight or flight response
Stress which most of us get on a daily basis in some for or another, will increase our levels of cortisol, which is associated with the fight or flight response. While this response is sensible in a truly threatening situation, it can become harmful this state becomes permanent. By taking periodic mini-meditations, we can activate the parasympathetic nervous system which in effect allows us to take a breath and a step back. This will in turn, reduce the harmful cortisol levels, and a relaxation response results.
5. Lowering Anxiety, Blood Pressure, and Heart Rates
There is a growing body of research showing that slowing down our breathing through meditation is going to help lower our blood pressure, anxiety levels, and heart rates. Slowing down our breathing regularly, or getting into this habit will long term help prevent stroke and many other health problems. Then of course there are many other benefits, like better concentration, more productivity, better focus, etc. Each of these benefits is a reason in itself to take up this habit of taking meditation time-outs, or mini-meditations throughout your day.
These are just 5 reasons to try mini-meditations today. Please comment if you found another reason to do regular conscious breaths throughout your day!